There was total silence in the classroom. The Year 6 state school students were working on a maths test displayed on the overhead projector.

Fifteen minutes before lunch break, "Becky" suddenly left the room without telling me where she was going. I sent a student after her to bring her back.

Becky was a special-case student with behaviour problems. She was required to sit alone as part of her normal classroom routine and was permitted to do something else while the rest of the class sat the test.

When they returned, I gently told Becky that she shouldn't have left the class without permission.

Her countenance changed and she yelled: "I had to go to the tuck shop to bring the lunches."

I knew about this routine but I also knew she did not need to leave more than a few minutes before the end of class. I told her she could go to the tuck shop closer to the bell.

Becky became angry and started abusing me with shocking language. I was a new migrant to Australia, only in my first year of relief teaching in Brisbane. Unlike the Australian-born and trained teachers, I was unaccustomed to students making disrespectful comments.

Becky's behaviour also upset the rest of the class when they saw how it had disturbed me. Even though I was still quite distressed, it bolstered my spirits to see the students' sympathetic reaction.

I decided to take Becky to the school principal immediately. I requested the teacher in the adjacent classroom to open the folding doors separating our classes and supervise my students until lunch time.

On the way to the principal's office, Becky said she didn't mean to hurt my feelings and was sorry for swearing at me. She begged me to forgive her and not take her to the office. With tears in my eyes, I told her that forgiveness would come but I was not going to ignore her misbehaviour. By the time we reached the principal's office, the girl was crying

and I was tearful enough to be hardly able to speak. I told the principal I wanted to go home right away. I had never encountered such abuse from any student I had taught in my life.

It seemed like the first time the principal had seen a teacher so distraught. He looked shocked with the situation. Promptly, he asked a secretary to make me a hot drink and accompany me to the staff room, while he talked to Becky in his office.

Becky was told she would be suspended for three days. She begged forgiveness and said her mum would lock her up in the house for the whole time, which would ruin her birthday. We told her we were very sorry this punishment was imposed just before her birthday but the decision to suspend her was final.

I regained my composure and the principal was pleased I was feeling well enough to be able to complete my teaching appointment. Before the day ended, I received apology letters from many students who had witnessed the exchange.

Becky also wrote me a nice apology letter. I gave her a hug and she admitted it was the first time she had ever seen a teacher so hurt and upset.

Knowing Becky was going to have to endure three days of punishment--not an easy thing for an 11-year-old girl during her birthday--I felt I should pray for Becky's classroom behaviour to change so she would recover from this regrettable event.

When I went back to the school the following week, Becky had a different attitude. She greeted me enthusiastically from afar with waving hands and even spent time talking to me during lunch break.

I accepted a one-term contract to teach at another school and it wasn't until the following year that I returned to Becky's school. I was so thrilled when I saw Becky in the assembly as one of the school captains.

I thank God for helping Becky aspire to become a better person, and for achieving such an honourable recognition from her peers and teachers. And I am grateful to God that out of a bad encounter Ophelia Smith is a primary school teacher who works in Perth, Western Australia, where she lives with her husband, Philip.